[From TheMantle] Art is a Debt We Owe

By Tolu Ogunlesi

No writer could possibly exist in isolation. Even if she succeeded in engineering a spatial isolation (think of the farthest reaches of outer space), psychic isolation from the rest of humanity would be impossible. At the very least a writer is also a citizen—with all the requisite responsibilities: paying tax, participating in local politics, and obeying the rules and regulations established by the state. She is a mélange of family ties, societal status, religious beliefs (or lack of them), biases, memories, romantic impulses, political affiliation and imaginative capacity. A writer is a human being first, and then a creative force, and therefore far more than the sum of his writing.

This applies everywhere, and in times of peace and conflict. Having established this, let us proceed to the all-important question: What is the role of the writer in a conflict zone?

Perhaps one should start by considering the options available to a writer in a conflict zone. (For the purposes of this article, I have chosen “war” as synonym for conflict). A writer’s choice of role(s) in conflict is admittedly limited. Aloofness is one possibility; this would mean an artistic disconnection from the conflict (“I will not / cannot write”). The other choice would be to “engage,” which would manifest as an artistic engagement (writing) or a militaristic one (taking up arms), or both.


The Nigerian civil war, also known as the Biafran War, was a watershed moment in the history of the Nigerian republic. Erupting only seven years after independence from Britain, it was merely the final breakdown at the end of a series of smaller (but progressively worsening) failures— widespread violence in the Western region, necessitating the declaration of a state of emergency; two violent, bloody coups that overthrew the central government; and the massacre of Eastern Nigerians living in the predominantly Muslim North. It is interesting to observe the responses of Nigerian writers to the war, and to try to draw patterns from the actions of five of them:

Wole Soyinka, who, two decades later would win the Nobel Prize in Literature; Chinua Achebe, who has come to be referred to (against his will by the way) as the Father of African Literature; Christopher Okigbo, arguably the most influential and most famous poet to come out of Nigeria; John Pepper (J. P.) Clark, poet, playwright and dramatist; and Ken Saro Wiwa, who would go on to become a world-famous environmental rights activist, and who, three decades later, would be hanged by Nigeria’s military dictatorship on the basis of unsubstantiated charges (of inciting murder).

A background to the war is necessary here. The killings of Igbos (the predominant ethnic group in Eastern Nigeria) living in Northern Nigeria compelled the military governor of the Eastern region to declare independence from Nigeria, and proclaim the breakaway nation the Republic of Biafra. The Government of Nigeria (headed by a Northerner) would have none of the declaration. Efforts at dialogue and negotiations of a peaceful settlement failed; in May 1967 war was declared. The war therefore pitched Nigeria (the Western and Northern regions) against Biafra (the Eastern region). It lasted for 30 months, ending in 1970 with the surrender of Biafra. For his attempts to negotiate with the Biafran authorities, the Nigerian government arrested and jailed Soyinka.

In a 2006 interview, Wole Soyinka (whose ethnic group, the Yorubas, are from Western Nigeria) said: “I didn’t believe in that war. I felt it was an unjust war on the part of the Federal Government, because the Biafrans had suffered a great deal… and while their action was politically unwise, I did not find it morally reprehensible, and they certainly did not deserve that they should be clobbered anew by the full Federal might when they were the immediate past victims.” Being Igbo, Chinua Achebe had the path of his allegiance clearly cut out. “I cannot possibly leave Biafra while [the war] goes on. I have to be here and do whatever little I can to help this terribly wronged country,” he wrote in a reply to an invitation from the Africa Studies Program at Northwestern University, Illinois. He spent the war years as a spokesperson for the government of Biafra, traveling to America and Europe to seek understanding allies for the Biafran war effort.

Achebe, pained by bosom friend J.P. Clark’s decision to join the Nigerian side (he saw it as nothing short of a betrayal), cut all ties with him. For years afterwards the two men were not on speaking terms.

Christopher Okigbo (also Igbo) sketched, in poetry full of an unnerving urgency and startling symbolism, the descent into anarchy (these poems were written before the war started):

CONTINUE READING here, or here


One thought on “[From TheMantle] Art is a Debt We Owe

    (Responding CAMEROON ANGLOPHONE LIT FORUM where he read the article as posted by Tande Dibussi from his blog… Apr 7 (1 day ago)

    Ogunlesi’s essay here, to me raises some good questions in/twds the end that i was looking fwd to anxiously: at what points in conflict are “words” impotent? We at times live in contexts and conditions where to merely “witness” becomes an alibi for escapism, cowardice & unproductive idealism. I am talking abt believing in the word/ink where our vis à vis/interlocutor has calloused his eardrums, where he misuses & abuses power wantonly, where there is a brazen will & ploy to eternalise the possession of that abused & corrupt(ed) power, where the institutional have been personalized and the personal institutionalized with utter disregard for the supreme norm. There really comes a time when a man/writer should/must stake his blood…when the ink has been rendered impotent. Beyond witnessing, he must act, must attain a contextual realization of his textual menace. And i believe Okigbo (unlike my spineless self) had the heroic & spined predisposition to die for an injustice that would at times render life useless just to “witness”…this gets sense from the French philosopher Romain Rolland’s argument that:

    “Quand l’ordre est injustice, le désordre est déjà un commencement de justice”.
    (When the order is injustice, disorder becomes a beginning of justice)

    in order words i would add:to dystopic conditions, drastic solutions. Art should serve life first and not life to serve art when lives are at stake: if life & its reason for living become threatened, we should sacrifice art to redeem life by all means necessary, even sacrifice of life to save lives: the purificatory, absolutory and ablutional spilling of the blood, that ink cannot match! Coincidentally, This theme is a major thrust in a recent poem i wrote: “Children of 2050” that will possibly feature in the forthcoming Anglo Cam poetry anthology SONGS FOR TOMMORROW:

    (Concessions and Confessions of the Present)

    Yes children of twenty-fifty, as I lament these confessions,
    What will you think of our generations?
    Every day with vile disgrace I ask the questions
    To myself, a self from the un-heroic stations
    Of those who have abjured the badge of venerations.

    What will you think of us, we the nakedest poltroons:
    Who slave and swoon in this circus of buffoons,
    Who squat on stools of fools, and with broken spoons,
    Eat despotic faeces from decadent latrines, and like moronic goons,
    Swig fetid piss and rouged puss from TB-ridden spittoons?

    What will you say of us, we living these inanities –
    Like the last of cowards most dwarfed, praying futilities,
    Waiting for the scant and scarce mercies of deities,
    Whom we patently know aid those who aid themselves,
    As in this self-imposed thraldom we watch dramatic absurdities
    Tragically acted, enacted, re-enacted by megalomaniac zombies –
    Most cruel – as they rehash with impunities their iniquities!

    What will you curse of me – son – child of this future?
    I who sang fire without daring furnace, those smoulders red and sure
    Where bellows flame the metal till it glows to the core,
    The war that I shivered to wage– a coward first by nature
    And second by generation – child, you will mock my denial of gore
    And my scorn for martyrdom, living sterile substitutions that only nurture
    Ideological escapisms and rantings – spinning the verb of vicarious suicides,
    Suicides cultured by hedonists’ heaven that only procrastinate urgent regicides!

    Child of 2050, you will be ashamed of your own old man!
    Because I stayed home and feared to spill the tyrant’s evil blood – the sham,
    Because I preferred a humiliating and decadent peace,
    Because I selected the diseased calm of dis-ease;

    Child of 2050, you will be ashamed of me when your dawn comes:
    Because I fled home and preferred the diasporic peace of borrowed homes,
    Because from the sanctuary of exiled distances I now gained voice,
    Because from across innocuous distances I now feigned war poise!

    But the truth is – O child of 2050! – we have graved ourselves in faecal catacombs
    After prolonged sessions of Gomorrhean sodomy, till we fall and sculpt hecatombs:
    My epoch compensates its undignified rot with gold-gilded sepulchres and feasts;
    But we have remained the most wretched of all cowards, a zoo of sedated beasts,
    We fool ourselves as Solomons, but we are kings of pleasure, slaves to the king,
    Yes Son, we merit the counterfeit thing – accomplices to the slime ring:

    Ring of a cabal that auctioned the nation for a song and did their striptease
    While I went on a barren pilgrimage creeping on my bleeding knees:
    I shed the wrong blood, mine, for the wrong cause and reason
    While the despot’s perverted blood pulsed loud with treason
    Beating loud gong to be spilled in this ripe regicidal season!

    But son, a bowed tree, you will bend your head down mortified by my story:
    A malingering soldier, with my feet, I voted –
    Rigging and ripping – the heroic pages of history,
    I scampered for the despicable retreat of rhetoric and appeasements,
    I decamped and camped with the race of sophists and spun endless arguments;
    While the impenitent rocks oppressed the land with implacable weights,
    I sided with troubadours and griots waging less prussic wars without weight –
    Misplaced wars of words, when I should have dared even Okigbo’s phantom,
    Or like Byron, bundle my own brigade and charge beyond poetic quantum:

    Yes son, stick my neck – for poetic threat must be matched by dramatic act,
    Lions must pair their roar with their maim and mangle, that’s the martyrical fact;
    Else your own progeny will never pardon your own spineless wisdom,
    Even if, in the death of your own day, you will brandish your own barbed poetry
    As your own ultimate defence against the lethal specimen of this thraldom
    You won’t have undone the machine of your own tyrant’s sinister mastery!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s